Not long ago, Zimbabwe went through a series of disappointing results - including series defeats against Afghanistan and Namibia. At a time when a bounce back looked impossible, the legendary Dave Houghton took charge as the head coach of the side.
And within six weeks, he turned things around as Zimbabwe went to make the cut for the T20 World Cup qualifying rounds. The Chevrons - as the team is referred to - took things a step further by clinching its first T20I series over a higher-ranked Bangladesh. It was also its first bilateral series win in the shortest format. Earlier this week, the side kept the momentum going and bagged the ODI series against Bangladesh 2-1.
While he is happy with the team’s progress, Houghton believes that if the boys continue to play fearless cricket, it has the potential to put up a strong fight against India in the three-match ODI series, beginning next week. On Thursday, Houghton spoke to Sportstar from Harare on the team’s transformation and his expectations from the series against India…
Ever since you took over as the head coach of Zimbabwe a few weeks ago, the team has enjoyed tremendous success - the T20 World Cup qualification, followed by the domination against Bangladesh in the just-concluded home series. Ahead of the ODI series against India, how do you look at things?
When I took over the team six weeks ago, they were on a losing spree and the spirit was quite let down. The biggest change I have tried to bring back is to give them a freedom to play. They were so scared of making mistakes, of losing, so on and so forth. There would be a lot of shouting in the change room and they were playing this fearful brand of cricket where they could not express themselves at all.
I had been here last year working in the local domestic and franchise cricket and I said all of last year that I thought the skillset was amazing and these guys were really good players. Literally, a week after (taking over), when we went to Bulawayo for the T20 qualifiers, everyone was playing with a smile on their face and was expressing themselves - sometimes maybe a bit too much, but I wasn’t going to stop that. If someone wants to reverse sweep in the first ball, I would like that intent from them. I like the fact that they enjoy playing like that with a big smile on their face. They enjoy what they are doing and all we have done is that we have started understanding every game and our skills is starting to show up now.
Our bowling and fielding is as good as its been even before my time. On top of that, we have some batters who are really expressing themselves. It’s all going well at the moment, but it will be a huge test against India because we are playing the strongest side in the world. But I would still expect us to put up a good performance and compete really well.
You mentioned how the team struggled after a losing spree. What were the areas that you worked on after taking over? Also, in the series against Zimbabwe, Sikandar Raza was the pillar of the batting department. What are your thoughts on that…
Obviously having somebody like Raza in the form that he has been is amazing. You also put together with that because having one player in that sort of form brings courage to the rest of the team. You suddenly get Innocent Kaia scoring a great hundred and then Regis Chakbva gets his first ODI hundred in the next match and that’s a good innings I have seen from anybody in this country. I think the a lot of enjoyment that guys are getting in terms of expressing themselves is really paying off and they are able to go out and fearlessly play their game. That’s why we have been able to turn the corner and play some quite nice cricket.
With no Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma in the Indian squad, what are the plans you have in place for the touring Indian team under the leadership of KL Rahul?
Having watched so much of Indian cricket and the IPL over the last few years, we know that India could probably put out three or four sides and perhaps be first, second, third, fourth in world cricket. Whatever side they send to us, we know it is going to be a strong and experienced side in terms of the amount of international cricket they play and it will be tough work for us. But before we dispersed for a few days after last night’s game, I told the boys in the dressing room that India coming here is a good opportunity for us to really score and get good results against one of the best sides in the world. I told them that, I want us to believe that we aren’t here just to add up to the numbers and watch India play really good cricket, but we are here to challenge. I am hoping in these three games, we can challenge India really hard.
For Zimbabwe, the India series could well be a build-up to the T20 World Cup. So, keeping that in mind, what are the areas that the team plans to work on?
We are not happy with the starts we are getting and that’s one of the areas I would like to work on, especially with our top-order batters. Also, we have been hamstrung by a few injuries and are missing some seniors like Sean Williams, Craig Erwin. It’s not that the youngsters don’t have the skills to replace them, but it’s just that they don’t have that experience. So, I am trying to see if we can get a better top-order start. Our bowling and fielding against Bangladesh have been exceptional, and I am happy with those two departments. The biggest thing for me is that we have to go out there with the belief that we can win. That’s a change we have made over the last few months and hopefully they will continue to believe and come out like that against India. If they do, we will play well and can put up a serious contest against the Indian side.
In your illustrious career, you have seen the India-Zimbabwe on-field rivalry growing. But things changed over the last couple of decades, and now, what does an India vs Zimbabwe series mean for the game?
I have seen that whole history. Right back to the 1980s, I have been playing against the India A side. In 1992, when we got Test status, our first Test match was against India, so we have a big history with India. You could possibly call this little series a rebirth of Zimbabwe cricket and India is involved again. We have got a great sporting history with India, may it continue for a long, long time. But come next week, we want to win.
When you took charge as the head coach a few weeks ago, were there any personal targets that you had set?
I knew what these guys could do. They know me and they treat me with unbelievable respect, which is amazing. My word is quite good to them in the changing room. I made a few promises when I came in - I told them that I would not reprimand anybody or shout or scream at anybody if they played a foul shot because my biggest thing was to bring back the fearlessness in the team where they could express themselves.
Right from the time I took over six weeks ago, I took them to a game park where we had a nice afternoon, followed by a barbeque in the evening. We spoke about this for 10 minutes. We did not talk about technique or special skills or what we are going to do in terms of our cricket. I just told them that they can now play fearlessly and that’s been the turnaround for us.
It’s not that we don’t do our homework about the teams we are playing, of course we do that. We do our statistical examinations and get the guys watch the videos of the opposition. Lance Klusener, the batting coach, has been brilliant in terms of talking to the lads before they play. We do our technical work but without taking out the fear, we would never improve. Now, hopefully, we can improve.
I am not saying we are invincible. I am sure we will have many bad days, in the last ODI against Bangladesh, we were in trouble with nine down for 90, but even our No. 10 and No. 11 came out and played shots to add another 60 runs. They entertained the people and that’s the kind of cricket I want our boys to continue to play. We will have bad days, but we will have a lot more good days.
In cricket’s fast-evolving landscape, several players are contemplating choosing franchise leagues over national assignments. How much of an impact will this trend have on the game in the longer run, especially for teams like Zimbabwe?
That’s really guesswork at the moment as to what’s going on. Everyone will have their opinions. I am a traditionalist, I can watch five days of Test cricket, I love it. But it’s not that I don’t like other formats, I do, but it’s just that I am more interested in Test cricket. I am seeing the guys who are retiring or not signing their contracts anymore - for instance, Ben Stokes retired from ODIs, Trent Boult is not signing his contract with New Zealand Cricket. I think what might happen over the next 10 years or so is that you will end up having all these franchise tournaments throughout the world, just like football Premier League and you will end up having small gaps where international cricket can be played. So, roles will be slightly reversed, that’s what I think will happen over the next 10 years or so.
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